Woman on Top is a Brazilian fantasy, a charming, magical fairytale, complete with a beautiful woman, a handsome man, magical powers, and a passion that the gods themselves take notice of. I’m exaggerating, but only a little.
Life on Top
R for sex
Isabella (Penelope Cruz) has always gotten motion sickness. The only cure is for her to be in control of the motion. In a car, she has to drive. Dancing, she has to lead. With her husband, well, she has to be on top.
Her husband Toninio (Murilo Benicio) loves her very much, and together they run a seaside restaurant — she cooks and he sings. But Toninio’s friends laugh at him. In Brazil (so this film says), it is unseemly for a man to let a woman take control. So one day he decides he needs to be on top, and he has an affair with another woman.
Isabella finds out about the affair and leaves Toninio. She goes to the United States because she thinks she can find work there as a chef. She has dozens of business cards from traveling restaurateurs who were very impressed by her cooking.
She arrives in San Francisco, sick from the flight, upset over her breakup, and eventually disappointed that she can’t find a job without any U.S. work experience. Her friend Monica (Harold Perrineau, Jr., playing a drag queen) lets her stay at her place until she can get back on her own two feet.
Isabella finds a job teaching at a cooking school, but it pays very little, and it’s only part time. Having to think about her old recipes reminds her of Toninio and of Brazil, and she becomes homesick.
Alone on Top
Isabella phones the voodoo priestess back home, asking for a spell that will make her stop loving Toninio so she can get on with her life. The priestess warns that the spell will be permanent, and Isabella agrees that’s just what she wants. That night, the sea-goddess is invoked and the spell is cast.
The next morning, Isabella has a new outfit, new hairdo, and a brand-new smile. She radiates beauty and happiness, and all the straight men in San Francisco take notice. At class she concocts a magical dish with such a magical smell that Cliff (Mark Feuerstein), a TV producer, is drawn to it from three blocks away. When he sees her beauty and smells the dish, he offers her her own TV cooking show, which becomes the most popular show in town.
Toninio in America
Meanwhile, Toninio is heartbroken. After weeks of wasting away from loneliness and regret, he too invokes the sea-goddess, praying to learn where his wife went. He finds out she’s in America, and he’s soon on the streets of San Francisco, tracing Isabella’s steps.
When he finds her, he tries to win her back, following her everywhere, singing Brazilian love songs to her. She’s pretty good at ignoring him, even though he breaks on to the set of her live cooking show, singing his love for her on-camera.
All Toninio can do is persist. Persist, and hope that his love and Isabella’s forgiveness are stronger than the sea-goddess’ powers.
Aside from the charming fairy-tale aspect to the story, there are lots of reasons to like this film.
One is that Woman on Top has a lovely exotic flavor to it, through and through. Some of the more obviously foreign flavors are the accents, Toninio’s music, and Isabella’s recipes. But there are also subtle flavors that you just don’t get in American fare. For example, take Toninio’s notion that lovers are fundamentally different from friends — that passion is not at all like friendship. Or notice how Isabella’s new-found beauty is radiant, happy, and whole, not just glamorous and sultry.
Also, Woman on Top is good-hearted and mature in a way that many mainstream films are not. Isabella’s reaction to Toninio’s affair is not at all vengeful. She simply moves away, recuperates, and improves herself. And Toninio is persistent, but he’s not psychotic. One gets the sense that if he believed Isabella no longer loved him, he would walk away.
Finally, Woman on Top is a feast for the eyes. Penelope Cruz truly is beautiful, and costuming makes her even more so. Whether she’s in a red dress in daylight or a turquoise gown under subdued lighting, she glows. And Murilo Benicio truly is tall, dark and handsome with a commanding, soft gaze. These two are a gorgeous couple, and fun to watch.
Woman on Top is an enjoyable fairy tale for adults. There were some flaws, but the movie’s overwhelming charm makes them easily forgiven.